“People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy.” ― Seneca
"Space we can recover, time never." - Napoleon Bonaparte
“Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brightest gems in a useful life.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson
People are often impressed by the fact that I read 4+ books a week, am learning 4 languages and write for up to 10 hours a day.
It's actually not at all impressive. My productivity is the result of something simple: I don't do a lot.
I don't have kids, or a business, or a dog or a house to clean. I don't have a 9-5 job and my studies are self-motivated. I have cut out everything unrelated to my personal growth. Being able to do so is an extraordinary privilege which I do not take for granted.
I was recently criticised by someone who claimed I overvalue creative work. According to them, the manual labour is of far more meaning to the world. Writing stuff isn't being productive, they said.
This is a dangerous, all too common belief. We need art (which I use as a blanket term for creative work.) Every human society in existence has chased beauty and mastery. Art is not an indulgence or a triviality. We forget that the cultural landscape is interconnected, not segmented. Each part feeds into the others. Just because someone chooses to reject a particular part does not mean the whole is irrelevant to their life. Remove one plant, animal or insect from any ecosystem and it will descend into chaos. Art is a part of our world and always will be.
According to Malcolm Gladwell's research, it takes 10,000 hours of deep work combined with innate ability to perfect a skill. My role in the world is to write, so I see it as vital that I get in my hours at the youngest age possible.
There's an old Chinese proverb which says: No one who rises before dawn 360 days a year fails to make his family rich. It originally referred to rice farmers, though it can be applied to any profession. Work for 3 hours a day, 360 days a year and you can reach 10,000 hours in 10 years. 6 hours a day and I can get there in 5 years. Of course, it's a guide and not a rule.
Out of choice, I have removed everything I can to create a maker's schedule. For February I have isolated myself in the middle of nowhere with no distractions. I emptied my calendar of any commitments.
When I make my daily plans, I always weigh up the balance of alive time and dead time. This is a concept from Robert Greene, although I have long had a similar thought myself before I had even heard of him. It's an intuitive idea. 'Alive time' = time spent working towards your goals. 'Dead time' = time spent waiting for the future, procrastinating, being unnecessarily miserable. When I am trapped in an unpleasant situation, I ask myself: will this be alive time or dead time? How can I turn this into something useful?
Alive time is not something which only happens during favourable circumstances. Plenty of people throughout history have turned horrendous experiences into something beneficial. Jean-Dominique Bauby described how he used his mind to escape his paralysed body; “my diving bell becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly.”
When I spent a year in hospital at 17, I made the choice to allow as little of it as possible to be dead time. Some days I did sink into despair and cry in a corner from morning to night. But for the most part, I read, wrote, learned French, studied and worked on my social skills. Staff came from all over the world. I interrogated them about their cultures, languages and histories. Despite confinement, I could enjoy all the alive time I wanted. I am now working on a book about the experience to turn it into something which other people can benefit from. That time was all material and I have thousands of pages of notes from it.
To everyone I know and have known in the past: I am sorry. I am sorry for all the invites I turned down. I am sorry for not answering your texts. I am sorry for moving, leaving, dropping out without warning. I am sorry if it came across as selfish, self-absorbed, egotistical. I hoped that my enthusiastic support of your art would make you understand. I am sorry if we drifted apart as a result.
My reasons were this: I treat my time as sacred. Going to that club might have been fun, but it would have meant 2 hours of queueing. Too much dead time. Answering your Facebook message would have been polite, but I knew I would get sucked into an hour of memes. If that makes me a shitty person in your eyes, so be it. All I want is to not be a person who makes shitty work.
Here, for example, is my calendar for next week. Nothing but the essentials - writing, reading, working and minutiae batched together. It is not rigid and I am flexible when something comes up, obviously.
This is why I talk so much about quitting things. Every single person on the planet has at least one thing they wish they could do, or do more of.
Maybe it's taking dance classes. Reading more. Using that box of watercolours under the stairs. Meditating. Writing letters.
Big or small, complex or simple, expensive or free.
It doesn't matter what it is. I know you have one. It's something you have shelved due to lack of time or energy. You tell yourself you will do it when you retire, on holiday, tomorrow, next year. Chances are, you have been saying that for a long time.
At the same time, I bet there is one thing in your calendar you could cut out. It might be a one-off, a regular commitment or a small task. No productivity tool or system can beat the power of saying no. No, I do not want to go to that party. No, I will not go grocery shopping and will pay £3 for delivery to save 3 hours. No, I am not going to buy more clothes which will require effort to keep tidy. Each salvaged hour can add up to mastery or at least enjoyment.
There are a thousand articles out there about decluttering your house, hard drive, garage, whatever. When I made the shift into minimalism, emptying my calendar was the most important part. A clear, tidy home means very little without the necessary alive time to enjoy it.
If I could write one thing on a billboard, it would be this: you're not coming back - respect the time you have.
This is not about working all the time, nor is it about never working. It is about taking time even more seriously than money. Minimalism is a tool and using it to make our time matter is the best possible use.
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